Range work key for muzzleloaders
By Tom Mitchell
Published: Friday, Oct. 26, 2007
Shooting a muzzleloading rifle is pretty simple, right• Just dump some black powder down the barrel, ram down a patched roundball or a conical bullet, and you're ready to fire. Hopefully, you'll hit the target. Not necessarily so.
Anyone who has done any amount of black powder shooting knows there's more to getting "on target" with a muzzlestuffer than determining loads by guesswork.
The fall muzzleloading season is over for another year, and many muzzleloading rifle hunters are looking forward to the "winter" season, which begins Dec. 26. For those new to muzzleloading or who may have a new rifle, hitting a target, live or paper, depends not only on good marksmanship, but also on working up a good load for a particular rifle. This means range work -- shooting paper targets.
To begin, muzzleloader accuracy is determined by the amount (and granulation) of black powder, thickness of the patch for roundball loads, and to some extent by patch lubricant. Consistency is extremely important when loading a muzzleloader. The primary consideration for a consistent load is seating the ball over the powder with the same pressure each time. A patched roundball must be seated directly on the powder. There must not be an air gap between powder and patch or dangerous pressures could result. Black powder produces little pressure compared to smokeless powder, so while one might argue that there's no way to generate enough pressure to rupture a barrel, excessive pressures will destroy accuracy.
When it comes to a patch and ball load, a general rules is: Tight is best. A patched roundball should fit snugly in the barrel and able to be pushed down the bore with a little effort, but should not have to be beaten or forced down the barrel.
Snugness is determined by patch thickness. When shooting at a range, examining shot patches is a good way to determine if a patch is too thick or too thin for a particular load. Basically, if a fired patch is torn, it's probably too thick. Use a thinner patch. Burned edges indicate that the patch is probably too thin.
As an example of what we're talking about, let's consider some typical loads for a common .50 caliber muzzleloader. Rifles of .50 caliber commonly use a .490 roundball with a .010, or .015 patch. Some shooters prefer a .495 roundball with a .005 to .008 (or even an .010) patch. When using the larger size .495 roundball, loading after the second, or in some cases even after a first shot, will call for swabbing the barrel with a lubed patch or two followed by a dry patch, to remove excess fouling.
If, for example, you're shooting .490 roundballs in a .50 caliber, range test loads using both .010 and .015 patches. Other patch thicknesses are available, such as .008, .012 or so, but these are usually found only in muzzleloader specialty shops or mail-order suppliers.
A shooter must also determine powder charge. I must confess that at one time I obtained good accuracy with 70 grains of 2Fg powder. For whatever reason I decided that I needed 90 grains of powder to hunt with. However, after several years and a lot of shooting, and a lot of discussion with longtime black powder shooters, I realized that all I was doing by adding an extra 20 grains to make a "hunting" load was burning the excess powder in the air.
The 90-grain load did little if anything to increase muzzle velocity as determined by a chronograph. Actually, any powder load between 60 and 80 grains may deliver the best accuracy, and in most cases, will propel a roundball completely through the average size deer. So, any well-placed shot using between 60 and 80 grains of powder will effect a clean, humane kill on deer, but again, we emphasize "well-placed" shot.
Patch lubricant is also important. Our muzzleloading forefathers used one of the most natural lubricants available -- spit. However, covering patches with spit leaves a terrible taste in the mouth -- patches simply don't have good flavor. Many types of modern patch lubricants are available, some are liquids, some are cream type pastes. Determining which may work best in a particular gun is again, a matter of experimentation.
While we're talking about patched roundball shooting, the same principles apply to firing shot charges in smoothbore muskets or muzzleloading shotguns. In this case the important determining factors are the amount of powder used, the amount of shot, and perhaps thickness of over-powder and over-shot wads.
Proper shot loads are determined by patterning loads and achieving consistent and acceptable patterns at a given range. As a rule, smoothbore muskets yield a more open cylinder-bore pattern having an effective range of about 25 to 30 yards.
On a final note, black powder granulation is also a consideration. Rifles of .45 caliber can use 3Fg powder and while .50 caliber rifles can use loads of 3Fg, better results may be obtained with 2Fg. Larger caliber rifles, muskets and shotguns call for 2Fg granulation.
When it comes to rifles, if a muzzleloader prints shot groups of one-inch or less at 25 yards consistently, it's doing well. Rifles having barrels with a 1-48 twist are considered as having a "compromise twist," meaning they can be used with roundball or conical ammunition.
If you're strictly a patched roundball shooter (as required in the winter season) you'll obtain much better accuracy with a gun having a barrel with a 1-60 to 1-66 twist, or thereabouts. Faster twists, such as 1-28, give good accuracy when shooting conicals but perform poorly with roundballs.
Range work is not difficult, but it is time-consuming. If you're shooting a flintlock be sure to have a supply of spare flints on hand. Regardless of what you're shooting, take a range rod and cleaning supplies to clean your rifle between shots. Careful experimentation will pay off in good rifle performance and the extra shooting will help marksmanship skills.
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